A few years ago, I read an article about crowdsourced design of a children’s play chair and became fascinated with the idea of crowdsourcing. At the time, the ‘crowd’ was being touted as the solution to a wide variety of problems (i.e. funding projects, solving complex mathematical problems) but this was an example of the crowd being harnessed for creativity, design, and innovation.
Now, crowdsourcing has been used in a wide variety of industries and continues to develop. In the toy industry, big players like Lego and small startups like Squishable have crowd-sourced new designs. And it doesn’t stop with toys and consumer goods; even big players like General Electric (with the help of digital strategy firm Undercurrent) are getting in the game for industrial products with an engine bracket design contest.It is incredible that crowdsourcing can produce solutions to serious engineering and design problems, though it should be no surprise given the success of solution crowdsourcing companies such as InnoCentive.
What follows are my thoughts on a few characteristics of crowdsourcing that I find fascinating and that I believe contribute to its continued success.
A large group of people, or a crowd, produces its own source of wisdom (see Surowieki’s The Wisdom of Crowds). The wisdom, or collective intelligence can be used for a wide variety of problems. However, I think that the most successful crowdsourcing projects make use of an engaged crowd, not just any crowd.
In crowdsourcing, engagement is more valuable that expertise. Even experience is not necessarily that valuable. Diversity, however, is extremely valuable, especially if those diverse parts are actively engaged in the activity. A wide range of experience levels and expertise inspire productive interactions. Having novices around will force experts to question their own assumptions and become teachers, while having experts around gives novices someone to learn from and something to gain.
Engagement also leads members to self-organize into appropriate and effective roles based on their desires and skills. This allows creators, voters, and consumers to exist, thrive, and contribute to the success of the community. Having a diversity of roles filled by engaged participants creates a more effective and efficient organism.
The most amazing thing to me about crowdsourcing is that people do this of their own volition. There are certainly a wide variety of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations (see Brabham Moving the Crowd at Threadless) but regardless of the motivation, participation is still a choice. Engagement encompasses all of the motivation profiles. Even if people are only participating for the money, they are focused and engaged because it is their choice to be there.
More engagement simply produces better results. Hiring an ‘expert’ to slog through a routine task (or even a non-routine task) does not guarantee great results and innovation. Many of the unique and interesting ideas in crowdsourcing projects come from novices who are extremely engaged. They are willing to put in the time and effort, and also feel a greater attachment to their work, both of which can contribute to better results than an ‘expert’ going through the motions.
The flip-side is that crowdsourcing will produce large amounts of crap. However, even the crap is valuable. Here, the engaged experts and more experienced members get to shine by filtering what is produced and actively or passively helping other members improve. Doing this requires passion and patience, which are hard to come by in a non-engaged person. And the people producing the crap? First, I bet they enjoyed it. And second, they probably learned something, which will keep them coming back with better and better contributions.
Give people the opportunity to participate, and they give their ideas in return. Empowering people to participate rather than telling them what to do or buy leads to increased engagement. Engagement leads to enjoyment, enjoyment to ownership, and ownership to better results. The crowdsourced design model empowers people to have an impact and change the world, resulting in more engaged supporters and customers. It also naturally selects for engaged individuals, as those who are not interested will not put out the effort to participate.
Communities over Companies
Another aspect of crowdsourcing that I find fascinating is the importance of the community.There are very rarely communities out there that are just waiting to be ‘tapped’ for ideas. Even in the case where a community already exists, they exist for their own purposes, not simply to be exploited by companies trying to solve problems. To approach crowdsourcing with existing communities, companies need to align their goals with the passions and desires of the crowd.
Often, a community needs to be created. To enable this, companies and organizations can create platforms and ecosystems where a community can thrive. They can tweak the conditions to enable the successful development of the community, but they cannot control the community. Once it starts, the community pursues its own evolution.
There does need to be some organization and hierarchy for successful crowdsourcing projects, someone to make decisions, but those people are not outside of the community, they are part of it. The final decision makers need to act as community leaders, not executives. They need to make decisions that are in the community’s best interests. If they don’t, the community revolts, or just leaves.
I love the focus on communities over companies. As we push well beyond the Industrial age and into the Innovation and Imagination ages, cooperation and collaboration become more and more important. As a species, we need to pursue mutually beneficial outcomes, not simply outcomes that benefit the few. With large communities influencing decisions, the outcomes are clearly in the best interest of many.
Communities and crowds are organisms. They grow, interact, and behave like biological systems. The crowd is flexible and adaptable, guided by itself to be more effective and efficient. Diversity is incredibly important in ecosystems and in communities and there are extraordinary and interesting feedback loops that arise from the diversity of engaged participants.
With more and more feedback loops, the crowd becomes self-scaling and self-organizing, and its actions are an emergent behavior. We cannot control ecosystems, just as we cannot control communities. We can only strive to understand them, enrich them and foster their growth and success. I love the example of how Twitter evolved into something different than what the creators initially imagined it would be based on the input and feedback of the users.
The similarities between ecosystems and communities are not that surprising given that they are both just large networks of interconnected pieces. However, I think that recognizing the relationship between communities and ecology is important in order to achieve success in crowdsourcing projects.
Crowdsourcing will continue to grow and develop. I am encouraged by the fact that it is pushing into areas where it initially seems difficult to implement crowdsourcing, like industrial manufacturing.
We are very used to crowdsourcing now but we often don’t call it that, it simply comes from the ability to interact with everyone, and platforms that facilitate that action. Facebook and Twitter are, in some sense, crowdsourcing content for each of us. We have some control of who we want to be influenced by (or who can input activity in our stream) but we rely on our networks to learn about new things and be exposed to new ideas. Soon, we will be increasingly comfortable with crowdsourced design and ingenuity.
I am very curious about how the crowd will contribute to solving big problems like global climate change. These problems are enormous and extremely complicated. How does the crowd fit in to these problems? Crowdsourcing projects require some level of design, structure and guidance. The problem needs to be broken down into pieces that individual participants can digest. Who provides that guidance and that organization?
Even with those difficulties, I still think the crowd will be crucial in solving these problems. The crowd phenomena gets more people involved and more people engaged and, regardless of their level of experience and expertise, that is what we need to solve global problems.
In Critical Path, Buckminster Fuller talks about what life would be like if each person was guaranteed a living fellowship: “freed of the necessity to earn a living, all humanity will want to exercise its fundamental drive first to comprehend “what is it all about” and second to demonstrate competence in respect to challenges.” Even though we have no living fellowship and the need to earn a living still exists, the crowd is already engaged in attacking these challenges and creating a more fruitful world.